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The Hoarding Scale

A common question I’m asked when people find out that I’m an organizer (after they ask, “Oh, so you work for the unions and stuff?”) is, “Do you see a lot of hoarders?”

Television shows like “Hoarders: Buried Alive” show extreme cases of pathological collecting and saving — not your average packrat. On one episode of “Hoarders: Buried Alive,” a young man with a hoarding disorder saved the fur shed from his dog because throwing it out seemed to him like discarding a part of his beloved animal. Another hoarder collected cats, thinking that she was rescuing them but, unbeknownst to her, 37 of them had died, trapped in the floor-to-ceiling debris in her house and garage.

I haven’t encountered a full-scale hoarder in my work, but I do regularly see many of the personality traits (such as impulse shopping or sentimentality) and life transitions (such as the death of a parent or a divorce) that can create sometimes serious organizing challenges. Such traits and transitions only lead to true hoarding, however, if a person is pre-disposed to the disorder.

The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization offers a levels 1-5 scale for professional organizers to recognize the severity of a hoarding problem in a potential client. The group recommends that organizers be particularly trained to work with Level 3-5 clients and also that they work in concert with a mental health professional.

I work with level 1 (the average clutter-challenged person) and level 2 (someone with more of a clutter problem) people on the hoarding scale. A level 1 household is “normal,” with some clutter, and is clean and livable, but perhaps with the occasional pet odors. Even some pest evidence — a few mouse droppings or an ants invasion — might be found in a Level 1 house.

A level 2 household might have more problems with pet and pest damage, may have some doorways blocked by clutter and may also have one important appliance, like a washer, dryer or refrigerator that hasn’t worked in some time. 

Levels 3, 4 and 5 continue in this mode but with floor to ceiling clutter and things like structural damage in the home, such as leaks or broken windows, bathrooms that are unusable, rotting food and major pest infestations. 

A person with a level 5 hoarding problem can sometimes not live in his own home because there is nowhere to sleep and the bathroom and kitchen are unusable. 

According to Behavioral Health Central, more than 3 million Americans suffer from hoarding disorder. For a true hoarder, it takes consistent work with a mental health professional, assistance from cleaning, organizing and removal services, and most importantly, a strong motivation to change to create and maintain a safe and orderly home.

For more information on hoarding and ways to get help, go to www.compulsivehoarding.org.